The microthermal measurement principle: Future-proof meters for natural gas/hydrogen mixes


An examination of the metrological behaviour of the microthermal measurement principle for gas meters operating with natural gas mixtures containing significant amounts of hydrogen.

The European Green Deal is the strategic plan to make the European Union carbon neutral by 2050. Decarbonizing the energy sector will be vital to achieving this goal, as this sector contributes significantly to Europe’s CO2 emissions. A strategy that shows promise in this respect is mixing natural gas with renewable gases, such as biogas or sustainably produced hydrogen.

This article was originally published in Smart Energy International Issue 4-2020.
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Using hydrogen admixtures, in particular, is a novel practice, and its compatibility with the current gas infrastructure is not yet fully understood, nor has it been investigated in depth. Gas meters are an essential part of the gas infrastructure and are indispensable in reliably and fairly billing consumption for all gas customers.

Microthermal measurement principle

A MEMS (micro-electromechanical system) based calorimetric sensor element is the core element of any microthermal flow sensor, such as those used in natural gas meters. The sensor element is located on a membrane on a silicon chip and consists of a micro-heating element and temperature sensors that are integrated upstream and downstream. When an electric current flows through the micro-heating element, it generates a temperature profile on the membrane. If no gas is flowing, the temperature is identical at the upstream and downstream temperature sensors (see Figure 1a). If gas flows across the membrane, it generates a heat flow – in other words, causes the temperature profile on the membrane to change – resulting in a temperature change at the upstream and downstream temperature sensors (see Figure 1c). The resulting temperature difference between the two sensor signal that is a function of the flow velocity: the greater the temperature difference, the greater the flow velocity of the gas over the sensor element.

The thermal flow measurement principle is based on the physical effect of heat convection, so the sensor signal depends on the flow velocity of the gas across the membrane on the one hand, and the measured natural gas mixture’s thermal properties on the other.

A thermal flow sensor, therefore, provides accurate measurement data if it has either been calibrated for a particular gas mixture in advance or if it has a routine that dynamically takes into account varying gas mixtures when measuring flow.


Gas meters can be used for a very large number of potential natural gas mixtures, and the composition of these can vary over time. In practice, it is not feasible to individually calibrate for all possible natural gas mixtures in advance. It is, however, possible to have a meter with a dynamic natural gas quality routine to ensure accurate flow measurements, even when the natural gas compositions vary.

Test Setup

The measurement data presented here was recorded using microthermal flow sensors with a dynamic natural gas quality routine. The routine is optimised for H, L, and E gases according to EN 437:2018 that contain up to 23% hydrogen. The flow sensors’ output signal is temperature- and pressure-compensated in standard litres per minute (slm).

The flow sensors were tested in a generic gas meter prototype housing, with the flow sensor positioned at the gas meter housing outlet. An external gas supplier mixed the tested gas mixtures (see Table 1). Sonic nozzles were used as flow references and the measurements were conducted at room temperature.

Flow measurements in natural gas/hydrogen mixtures

Figure 3 shows the relative measurement errors at the reference gas flow of up to 100 standard litres per minute (slm) for three flow sensors in air, methane, and natural gas mixtures containing 5%, 10%, and 23% hydrogen. The error limits of ± 3.5% and ± 2.0% shown in red are the maximum permissible error limits according to European Directive 2016/32/EC on measuring instruments (MID) and the recommendations made by the International Organization of Legal Metrology OIML R 137 regarding temperature-compensated gas meters of accuracy class 1.5.

All the error curves of each of the three measured flow sensors are well within the maximum permissible error limits and also comply with the permitted air-gas relationship of 3% and 1.5% respectively according to the European Standard for ultrasonic gas meters EN 14236:2018 and the draft European Standard for thermal mass flow-meter based natural gas meters (prEN 17526).

The test gas containing 23% hydrogen (the maximum amount used in this series of measurements) was test gas G222 as per EN 437:2018. G222 is the gas mixture with the maximum hydrogen content used for testing gas appliances for second family natural gas mixtures according to EN 437:2018. Hydrogen content of 23% is not, however, the upper limit for the microthermal flow measurement principle. If more than 23% hydrogen in natural gas becomes foreseeable from an application angle or a market perspective, the measuring range for hydrogen can be extended as required.

Operational safety

Some microthermal flow sensors, i.e. those produced by Sensirion, do not have any safety-related limitations when they are operated with natural gas mixtures containing any amount of hydrogen. Both the maximum temperature and the maximum stored thermal energy on the micro-sensor element are significantly below hydrogen/air mixtures’ ignition temperature or ignition energy, even if the flow sensor’s voltage regulation malfunctions.

Consistently compact size for any hydrogen admixture

When adding hydrogen to natural gas, it is important to consider that the calorific value of hydrogen by volume is about three times lower than typical natural gas mixtures. In practice, this means that, if a gas appliance is operated with pure hydrogen instead of natural gas mixtures, a gas volume approximately three times greater must be supplied to achieve comparable heating. In this case, gas meters originally designed for operation with natural gas need to be capable of measuring an increased gas volume due to the admixture of hydrogen, so purely volumetric natural gas meters may need to be chosen in a larger size. Larger meter designs can lead to higher costs and require more installation space. If larger gas volumes flow through a meter than it was originally designed for during operation with hydrogen-free natural gas, this can increase the wear on the meter mechanics, thus shortening the service life.

In contrast, microthermal flow measurement technology is a static measurement principle without any moving parts. Consequently, increased volume flow does not result in any additional wear and does not influence the microthermal gas meter’s service life. Unlike with volumetric gas meters, microthermal gas meters can be the same size regardless of whether they are operated with natural gas or with any optional hydrogen content. In the microthermal measurement principle, the key parameter to be considered is not the gas volume flowing through the meter, but rather the relevant gas mixture’s Reynolds number. It is often used as a parameter in fluid dynamics and can provide information about whether turbulent (high Reynolds number) or laminar (low Reynolds number) flow conditions are formed in a system.

Comparing the Reynolds numbers for pure methane ReCH4 (representing a natural gas mixture) and for pure hydrogen ReH2 shows that ReH2 is lower than ReCH4 by a factor of more than six for the same meter housing geometry. Even assuming that hydrogen flow increases by a factor of three (to compensate for the lower calorific value of hydrogen, three times lower than natural gas), ReH2 is still about two times lower than ReCH4. Compared to methane, the lower Reynolds number for hydrogen means that measuring conditions remain stable at all times with the same meter housing geometry, even if the volume flow increases by a factor of three.

Consequently, the same meter size can be used without any problems for both natural gas and for operation with up to 100% hydrogen. The pressure drop caused by the gas meter at the increased flow when using hydrogen also remains comparable with normal operation using natural gas. This is due to hydrogen being far less dense.

Conclusion and outlook

The measurement data presented here shows that the microthermal measurement principle complies with the error limits for measurement accuracy and the air-gas relationship as stipulated by the MID for various natural gas/hydrogen mixtures. The 23% maximum hydrogen content in this series of measurements is not a technical upper limit for the measurement principle. Rather, it corresponds to the maximum hydrogen content in test gases according to EN 437:2018.

The measuring range of the microthermal measurement principle for hydrogen can be extended as required. There are no limitations concerning operational safety, even when operating with 100% hydrogen.

The size of microthermal gas meters, which are already very compact, can be maintained regardless of the hydrogen admixtures. This is a distinct advantage when compared to purely volumetric meters. It eliminates the need for expensive, large meter designs, and keeps the logistics and installation of microthermal meters simple and affordable.

In recent years, technological progress in gas meters has mainly involved enabling them to communicate as smart meters. Hydrogen admixtures could drive further modernisation in the gas meter industry, seeing a move away from old, mechanical, and volumetric measurement principles toward modern technologies that can offer significant advantages for operation with hydrogen.

Over 4 million gas customers worldwide are already benefiting from reliable and fair billing through microthermal gas meters.

Going forward, hydrogen admixtures may well promote the ever-faster uptake of this compact, static metering technology.

About Michele Montinaro

Michele Montinaro, is the key account manager, Industrial market, for Sensirion. He is responsible for the smart energy and Industrial market, helping customers create value for all kinds of applications. Montinaro draws on a broad range of experience in sensor technology. He holds a PhD in Physics from the University of Basel.

About Sensirion

Sensirion AG is a leading manufacturer of digital microsensors and systems. Its product range includes gas and liquid flow sensors, differential pressure sensors and environmental sensors for the measurement of humidity and temperature, volatile organic compounds, carbon dioxide and particulate matter.